The world has moved on from the coronavirus pandemic—except for China. Chinese leaders continue to lock down some of the country’s largest cities, spend millions of dollars on testing, and hunt down individual case after individual case. Nothing—neither a sinking economy nor the availability of vaccines and improved treatments nor the country’s growing isolation—has persuaded the leadership to change course. The latest wave of lockdowns has largely confined millions to their homes: Just two of those lockdowns, involving the southwestern metropolis of Chengdu and the tech hub of Shenzhen, affected a combined population roughly equivalent to all of Canada’s.
The reasons China won’t budge from its strict COVID controls lie deep within the workings of the Chinese Communist Party, especially under its current boss, President Xi Jinping. The zero-COVID policy, a mandate that cases of infection must be kept at or near zero, ceased to be about public health a long time ago. It is all about politics now—and that’s why it is difficult to discern when, or even if, Beijing will abandon the policy.
Beijing’s rigid approach to managing the coronavirus outbreak is a consequence of the country’s authoritarian governance. That system had some advantages in the early stages of the pandemic, almost three years ago, when the Chinese state’s extensive apparatus of repression gave it far greater means to confine and control the public than most liberal-democratic governments could muster. Over time, though, the pandemic has exposed how an inflexible autocracy that lacks the legitimacy conferred by the ballot box can become fixed into dangerous and self-defeating patterns of policy and behavior. That is precisely the position Beijing occupies today, as it clings desperately to zero COVID.
When the outbreak began in Wuhan in early 2020, the virus was unknown, vaccines were unavailable, and China’s poorly equipped health system could have quickly become overwhelmed by a sweeping pandemic. Yet the policy had a political element from the very beginning as well. The Communist Party is adept at sniffing out threats to its rule, and it quickly identified COVID as one of them. A major public-health crisis, with millions dying, would have raised serious doubts about the regime’s competence, which is, in effect, its sole claim to legitimacy.
Worse, the party could have faced a populace that directly blamed it for the outbreak—with good reason. The Chinese authorities at both the national and local levels botched their initial response to the novel coronavirus, suppressing information about its discovery by a Wuhan doctor and acting far too slowly to contain the initial spread. Sensing its potential vulnerability, the party shifted into anti-COVID overdrive, shutting down large swaths of the country, with the result that it did succeed in snuffing out an epidemic in a matter of weeks, even as it spread to the rest of the world.
That success allowed the Communist Party to transform a potential tragedy into a public-relations triumph. Within weeks of the Wuhan outbreak, China’s propaganda machine was touting the wonders of its virus-busting methods. And as the U.S. and other Western countries struggled to contain the disease, Beijing’s big win became even more valuable as evidence that its authoritarian system was more capable and caring than any democratic one. Beijing and its advocates pointed to rising case and death counts in the U.S. as proof of China’s superiority and American decline.
Furthermore, the victory of zero COVID was claimed not just as the party’s but as Xi Jinping’s in particular. The State Council, China’s highest governing body, declared in a 2020 white paper that Xi had “taken personal command, planned the response, overseen the general situation and acted decisively, pointing the way forward in the fight against the epidemic.”
This narrative became entrenched. If Beijing loosened up and allowed COVID to run amok, the Chinese system would appear no better than those of loser democracies, and Xi would seem like another failing politician, a mere mortal, not the virus-fighting superhero he was painted as. Zero COVID’s failure would be a disaster for the Communist Party’s veneer of infallibility.
So the leadership insists on zero COVID and damn the consequences. The economy, stifled by the lockdowns and other controls, inched upward just 0.4 percent in the second quarter of this year, an astonishingly meager rate by China’s historical standards. Local governments have been overburdened by the costs of pandemic prevention and are running out of cash. (By one estimate, from Joerg Wuttke, the president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, the bill for a single round of city-wide testing in Shanghai was about $30 million.) International business sentiment toward the country has soured.
Signs of discontent among China’s citizens are growing. During Shanghai’s two-month lockdown earlier this year, residents who had been shut in their homes without sufficient food began protesting by banging pots and pans and screaming out their windows. This highly unusual public display of anger at the government drew a predictably repressive response from the authorities, who cordoned off apartment blocks with fences as though the city’s inhabitants were rebelling against the policy.
In the party’s dogmatic adherence to its plan, zero COVID is beginning to resemble China’s former one-child policy. For decades the Communist Party maintained that stricture, which limited most urban-dwelling families to a single child, even as the country’s looming demographic disaster became obvious. The harshly enforced policy became so entwined with the party’s agenda that to retreat from it seemed impossible. Although the government finally rescinded the policy, it did so only gradually, to avoid giving any impression that it accepted its mistake.
Zero COVID may follow the same pattern. Hopes are rising that Xi will relent on the policy after next month’s 20th Communist Party Congress, at which he is widely expected to break with modern precedent in China’s leadership and claim a third term in power. Once he has secured his position, the thinking goes, Xi will have greater flexibility to change direction.
That is possible. But equally so is that Xi decides to keep zero COVID, or some form of it, in place. Given his close association with the policy, Xi could insist on retaining it as central to his political authority. Over his decade of rule, Xi has shown a clear preference for extending both the state’s control over society and his personal grip on the government. Zero COVID has offered a potent way to achieve those aims.
The additional layers of high-tech surveillance adopted in the name of pandemic prevention can be used to enhance the tracking and monitoring of the populace more generally. The policy has also empowered local wardens on neighborhood committees, which have been tasked with enforcing zero COVID’s edicts at a block level. That civilian army of petty officials can be a tool to impose greater state oversight of China’s sprawling cities. The restrictions on international travel that were adopted to minimize COVID transmission could become a way to limit Chinese citizens’ exposure to outside information and influence—the physical equivalent of China’s digital Great Firewall.
Whichever course Xi chooses, a couple of conclusions can be drawn from China’s COVID response. First, economic development is no longer the Communist Party’s top priority. Over the preceding 30 years, Chinese officials could be counted on to place a high rate of growth before all other concerns. Xi’s stand on zero COVID despite its costs suggests that the party now favors political and social control over economic progress.
Second, Beijing ranks politics above science—a politics that, under Xi, has become inflected with nationalism. The Chinese authorities have relied on homegrown vaccines and refused to employ more effective alternatives developed by Western companies. These could offer China’s leaders more options in managing the coronavirus, but they likely want to avoid any semblance of depending on the West for aid.
A science-led approach to vaccination has figured notably little in China’s anti-COVID strategy. Although the government promoted vaccines, and boasts a strong rate of vaccination, it has not adjusted its virus-fighting methods to their potential benefits. In Beijing, for instance, residents require a recent negative test to dine in a restaurant or ride the subway, but no certification of vaccination. Vaccines, of course, do not prevent all infections but do offer good protection against serious illness or death. If the metric that counts is zero cases, vaccination is not a priority. But this, again, suggests that managing the party’s image, not the public’s health, has become zero COVID’s purpose.
The COVID pandemic has exposed the political vulnerabilities of modern societies of all types, democratic as well as autocratic. In the U.S., Washington’s failure to control the pandemic laid bare the problems inherent in the country’s highly polarized, partisan politics. In China, the pandemic has highlighted the dangers of an authoritarian government that is not responsible to the people. With no accountability, the state can do what is best for the state. For Xi Jinping, that works just fine.